For her, the job includes mentoring and being a role model
Joyce Ester longs for the day when a Black woman leading a college or university isn’t unusual but rather a commonplace. Nearly two years ago she became the third Black female college president in Minnesota when she was named Normandale Community College president.
“It has been a very fun transition,” says Ester, who left a similar position in Chicago for the Bloomington-based two-year school in August 2014. “Time flies when you are doing this work.”
She points out that she is following in the footsteps first forged by the late Willa Player, the first Black woman to lead a four-year college in the U.S. as Bennett College president for 10 years (1955-1966). Ester currently serves as a mentor to a Black woman, a Black man, and a White man: “That’s my responsibility, to serve as a mentor,” Ester says.
Nonetheless, she doesn’t take her historical footnote in Minnesota higher education annals lightly. “It’s not lost on me… I am very proud of the people who came before me. There are lots of women leaders in this community, Black women leaders in this community. Even though I don’t know them or never met them, I do know it is because of the doors they opened [that] I am here.
“I knew African American female presidents, so it was a possibility for me,” continues Ester. “One of the challenges is where our colleges are located in communities around the country. There are some places that are just more open to having women of color [and] people of color as leaders. That also is an important factor, [because] there are certain communities that may not be as accepting.
“I’m very fortunate that I don’t have that experience, but that is not always the case.”
She recalls a letter she received from a local Black father with two young daughters soon after Normandale hired her after three years as Kennedy-King College president in Chicago. “He said to me, ‘Welcome to Minnesota. Welcome to MnSCU. And I am so excited that my daughters now have someone to aspire towards.’ This is from someone I didn’t know.”
Since her arrival, “We are doing some real good things in transferring our students to universities and getting folk into the workforce.” On November 13, Normandale and Resound, a Bloomington-based hearing aid manufacturer, announced the joint acceptance of a three-year Minnesota Job Skills Partnership training grant awarded by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to develop skills in Minnesota’s workforce that will keep jobs and grow jobs in the state.
As with any college, securing funding is an ongoing challenge, says Ester. “We have been very successful in securing grants from both the government as well as private donations, which has been real helpful to help us with our programs — science and technology areas, dental hygiene and advance therapy. It has been a very good year and a half.”
Ester cited one example of this success: After the school advertised her arrival, a local company CEO was sufficiently impressed to establish a grant. “I think telling our story is part of it,” she says.
“We have some amazing faculty and staff here who are just dedicated and really want to see success. A lot of the success comes from me being able to say to the people here that I support you — go forth and try something, and do some innovative things, and reach out to some people.”
Her initial goals upon assuming her presidential duties included getting out “to meet everybody and find out what we are doing.” Some have said that it has been Ester’s positive attitude, which is apparent when you meet her, that makes a lasting impression.
“At some levels I think it is some of that, my personality,” says Ester. “I’m going out into the community and saying, ‘Hey let me tell you about this amazing college I am a part of.” But she is quick to add that she also “steps back” and allows the faculty and staff do their job.
“In the time that I have been here, three of the four semesters we were in positive enrollment [growth],” says Ester. “That’s not the national norm right now for [college] enrollments to be moving [up] no matter how slight. Normandale is a really great school, so I came into a place whose direction was already moving in a very positive direction anyway.”
Ester says Normandale’s reputation has helped in some respects. “People want to be a part of the success we have here. I also think there is something to say when you have new leadership and new energy on campus. I’m new and I am getting out in the community.
“There are a lot of schools around the country and in the state doing great things,” she continues. “So why are our numbers increasing? I don’t know. I think it is the luck of the draw sometimes.”
Another challenge is to have in place faculty and staff who reflect the student population. “The diversity of our student body is increasing, about 35 percent students of color,” notes Ester, who acknowledges that Normandale’s faculty and staff are “not on par with the diversity of our students. That’s something we need to be looking at as we hire additional faculty and staff — that they represent the students that we serve.
“If we are going to bring in diverse faculty and staff to our campus, we need to make sure our campus is an environment [where] diverse communities would be welcomed and be able to strive. [But] if I don’t have the finances to hire new people, then I can’t get new people regardless of what their diversity background is.”
Ester finds her job as Normandale’s president rewarding and challenging, historical footnotes notwithstanding. “I think if more of us — African American women and women of color — as we take on these roles, young women can see the possibility for them. There is an opportunity for young people to look up to us.
“I think that as people recognize that we are in these seats because we have experience and qualifications, [then] it is not seen as tokenism or seen as something novel.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.